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Sunday, 19 July 2015

Are Your People Fed Up With Repetitive Work? Give Them the Freedom to Change!

The recent number of wartime anniversaries reminded me that in both the First and the Second World Wars we had in the UK effectively full employment.

Admittedly a large majority of men were in military service but in any case the women made up for that shortage by taking on tasks that under normal circumstances they would never have contemplated.

Apart from service like the Land Army many of the jobs that the women took on were in the munitions industry.

For obvious reasons most of the jobs for women were classed as unskilled if only because few of them had experience of manufacturing industry with the specific exception of textile weaving and spinning.

In order to maximise the efficiency of the process it made sense at least from a manufacturing perspective to make each job as simple as possible by de-skirling.

It made the work totally repetitive with the virtual elimination of any input from the operative other than the need to undertake a simple mechanical task.

In other words the work was dehumanised to such an extent that significant psychological problems often resulted.

Kenneth and Will Hopper describe the birth of mass production in their great book, The Puritan Gift, the federal Springfield Armory being the progenitor.

Historically armaments had been hand made with the result that if a gun failed for any reason it could not be repaired without effectively rebuilding it by hand.

Machines allowed the manufacture of identical and hence replaceable components that not only simplified assembly but also significantly reduced costs.

The unintended spin-off however was the consequent de-skirling of the job and the onset of using people only to perform simple, mundane and boringly repetitive tasks.

These methods could be justified in wartime when manufacture of munitions was so vital but they naturally continued in many industries after the wars were over.

Charlie Chaplin in his film, Modern Times, depicted the little man working on a production line and performing a simple repetitive task of tightening two bolts with a spanner in each hand.

The line was speeded up and he manages to keep up but when the line stops he can't and the spanners keep trying to find bolts to tighten.

I have seen a plant manufacturing a well-known energy drink where the final quality inspection was visual as the bottles passed on a line in front of a brightly lit screen. 

To the credit of the company they realised that the task was so onerous that the operatives could only work for twenty minutes at a time and then had forty minutes in a restroom to recover.

Whether these functions still apply (it was a long time ago) I can't say but for sure there will be others that have taken over the use of dehumanised tasks in the workplace.

Perhaps the growth in robotics has eliminated many repetitive tasks in manufacturing but other industries have emerged where, perhaps worse, the tasks have been more cerebral than mechanical.

Typical of these is the dreaded call centre where operatives are expected to achieve a targeted number of calls each day, the calls being made automatically by the system.

It is another form of mass production and few people can cope with it for very long.

It is worth taking a look at the various functions in your business to see if any boring repetitive tasks can be re-engineered or better still eliminated.

Pay due heed to the abilities of your people and give them the freedom to think about and possibly change the way that they contribute.

If they are doing the job they are the best people to ask how to improve it.

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